A few days after surgery last year, when my surgeon stopped by my hospital room in the morning on his rounds, I had the privilege of seeing an image of my own heart. It was the first time I was coherent enough to hold a conversation with him since coming out of surgery, and as we talked about the procedure, I asked him if there was any video of it (not by nature a squeamish person, if there was a video, I desperately wanted to see it). "No," he said, "no video, but I did take some pictures." He then promptly pulled his iphone out of his pocket and showed me the image of a heart--quiet, still, its being open to the world.
There I was, looking at MY own heart--though, naturally, I didn't recognize myself at all. The picture is cropped in tight. You see the heart, part of the metal frame holding my chest open, the pink mesh net in which my heart was cradled as it was lifted out of my body and then placed back in my chest once the cavity was filled with ice. The heart I see is no longer beating. And when you look closely, you can see the two candelas piercing my heart that were used to direct blood from my body to the heart-lung machine and back. A few days after surgery, still confused about what had even happened, there I was, following the line of my surgeon's finger as he pointed out the damaged parts of my now-fixed heart. I asked him if he would email the image to me, and he agreed, though why I should want it, he said, he wasn't quite sure.
I couldn't say exactly, but, on the other hand, how could I NOT want this new picture of me? Or this picture of the new me?
As morbid as it may seem, I now have a picture of my heart taped to one of the walls of my studio. I have studied it, painted in response to it, written about it, and studied it some more. I have come to know it as my own, and yet, if I saw it in a room full of others, I would never recognize it as mine: there is nothing about my bare heart that screams "Lori Anne."
I have thought a lot about what it means--this seeing into the (my) body like that, what it means to have gotten a glimpse of myself--exposed, vulnerable, stripped open to the world in moments I will never recall since I was already knocked out. Forever vanished from that scene. It is a view of the abject, in a way, isn't it? (this thought came to mind today and I am still trying it out, so if you have any response or thoughts about this, please don't hesitate to share. I want to write about all of this, NEED to write about it, I've realized. This blog is a great way for me to commit, to throw nascent ideas out into the virtual world, and see what sticks. Or what I come back to later on.)
French philosopher Julia Kristeva has this to say about the abject in her book Powers of Horror:
"A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being."
Experiencing the abject, the reaction to ones own materiality, is a confrontation. I confront my death, I encounter it. I am not simply shown evidence of it, but experience right up in my face the dying that is my own.
I am wondering this afternoon, if seeing my own heart--a connotation of death in this instance--since this type of seeing only happens when something is gravely wrong, could be likened to seeing the corpse of another, which pulls you back into the experience of death. We live our lives fleeing from this. Fleeing so we can live, for how could we live if we constantly mired ourselves in our own decay?
And yet, seeing my own heart has also reminded me of my connectedness to other beings, has reminded me of my own creatureliness in a way that is not abhorrent to me. The other night, I watched a documentary about evolution and crocodiles. Crocodiles have amazing hearts equipped with valves capable of redirecting the flow of blood to those parts of the body needing it the most depending on what the crocodile is doing. When a crocodile stays under water, for example, the heart redirects the flow of blood so more blood cycles to the crocodile's brain. I confess: as I watched the documentary and saw the crocodilian autopsy that afforded me a glimpse of the heart of another, I did think about my own and saw myself reflected (connected) there.
The abject or an opening? Or, more likely, quite a bit of both?
Although, how precisely does an image function? Here, questions about the nature of photography and image come to mind. What is a photograph? To what extent does it enable the viewer to experience the original depicted scene? What does it mean to have in one's possession a photograph of one's own heart? For seeing a photograph of my own heart, regardless of how long I stare and how much I imagine myself back into the scene, is much different than opening my eyes on the operating table and looking into the mirror that happens to be mounted on the ceiling and seeing myself cut open with my heart bare. Certainly THAT experience would be one of abjection, but I wonder if the photograph is closer to the encephalograph mentioned by Kristeva--a sign that offers distance and rational understanding?
The abject or an opening or the momentarily abject as eventual opening?
I am trying to understand without short-circuiting either possibility.
Just some thoughts and questions more than a year later as I continue holding my heart in my hand and putting it up to the light, turning it this way and that ...